Alex Khowaylo, a 1963 NCE graduate, has had a prominent career as an engineer, a designer and an entrepreneur.
Alex and his parents travelled through Europe for almost a year, looking for a new homeland. They wound up in Germany in 1945, where they lived for five years in a camp for people like them who had been uprooted and displaced by the war. He was 4 years old when they arrived, and 9 when his family was finally able to leave the camp. An ocean liner sailed them across the Atlantic and into the Hudson River, past the Statue of Liberty and into Ellis Island. They came to America, which in Alex’s young eyes and mind seemed paradisal -- a promise land.
They lived first in Queens, then later moved to Passaic, N.J., where Alex’s father, opened a book binding and picture framing shop. Alex helped him in the store, and liked to work with his hands on the books and frames, especially the mechanical tasks.
His family briefly moved to Buffalo, N.Y., then returned to Paterson, N.J., where he attended Paterson’s East Side High School. He later enrolled at the Newark College of Engineering and majored in mechanical engineering. Though he says he was an “an average student,” he excelled as a goalie on the NCE soccer team. His tenacious goal-keeping and talent for shutouts helped his team, in 1960, win the NAIA National championship. But this self-proclaimed “average student” would go onto have a prominent career in engineering, design, manufacturing and business.
After graduating from NCE, he took a job with a consumer hard goods company, where he learned elements of design and manufacturing as well as how to work well with people -- his colleagues. In 1968, he took a job at Howmedica, a company that was part of the fledging orthopedic implant industry. It was the right job at just the right time – a time when the implant industry was beginning to grow. Back then, mechanical engineers designed and made implants and Alex had a knack for it. So much so that he, along with another NCE grad working then at Howmedica, developed a number of novel implant devices, including a design for a knee replacement that earned them a patent.
He would go on to co-found and manage three orthopedic implant companies, all of which were acquired by major corporations. He’s now working on starting a fourth company. One of his partners in the start-up, Robert Cohen, is also an NCE-trained engineer.
In the upcoming Salute to Engineering Excellence Dinner, NCE will honor Alex’s achievements by giving him an outstanding alumni award.
In this interview, he talks about his uprooted childhood, his days at NCE as well as his distinguished career as an engineer, an innovator and an entrepreneur.
You were born in the Ukraine, but your family was forced to leave the country. Can you talk about that?
I left the Ukraine when I was 3. The Russians overran the Ukraine and my family had to leave. My father fought the Russians as part of the underground movement, so he was a marked man -- a hunted man -- and we had to leave the country. He told me stories of friends and family who disappeared during this time. And during the exile, families sometimes became separated. The bombing of World War II was such that my family travelled for nearly a year, then in 1945 we wound up in Germany. During one train ride my mother and I were separated from my father, but by some miracle, a few weeks later he found us.
So you settled in Germany?
Yes. We ended up in a in a displaced person’s camp, where we lived for about 5 years. We lived in a big dorm, much like a large gym, with other displaced families. To create some form of privacy, we hung blankets around our space. I spent time outdoors playing with the other children. They had a make-shift school, but classes were intermittent. I spoke Ukrainian then but I learned German. The war had been hell, but I didn’t know any better, so I thought the camp was fun. My father, who was a mechanical engineer, found what little work he could. The Americans ran the camp and I loved the American GIs, who were very good to us. We were given CARE packages that helped a lot. Because of the GIs and the good image we had of America, when I was 9 my father arranged for us to immigrate to America.
Do you remember coming to America?
I remember crossing the Atlantic in 1950 on a freighter named the General Greeley. We first went to New Orleans to drop off cargo and then headed back up the east coast to New York City. The trip took over 3 weeks and the ocean was at times rough. As the ship entered the Hudson River, I stood on the deck of the ship. It was dawn and the sun was rising. I saw the Statute of Liberty and Ellis Island. Coming from war-torn Europe, the New York skyline looked like something out of a fairytale -- a sight you can’t imagine.
Where did you live at first?
We first lived in Queens, with a family who sponsored us. The family had a boy about my age who helped me learn English and American customs. A year later we moved to Passaic where we lived for about four years, before we moved to Buffalo, where my dad got a job in the Chevrolet auto plant. We moved back to New Jersey in 1956, and I went to Paterson’s East Side High. There I played basketball and soccer.
What did your father do for a living?
My father was an engineer, but also a bit of businessman. When we moved to Passaic he opened up a book binding and picture framing shop. I helped him in the store, and that is from there where my mechanical interest evolved. So after I graduated high school in 1959, I went to NCE, where I majored in mechanical engineering.
How did you like NCE?
NCE was a great school. The tuition was modest (about $375 per semester) and I lived at home to save money. NCE gave me a part-time job to help me pay tuition. I worked as a janitor, cleaning up Colton Hall during the evening classes. Some of my professors were working engineers. They wanted us to learn formulas, but they emphasized their application. They wanted us to apply the theory to solve practical problem. That was helpful to me in the course of my career. Back then, we were required to wear jacket and tie to class. The classes had no air conditioning and the spring semester was hellishly hot. In our free time we played cards (bridge and hearts for money and I tried to win -- money I’d then use to pay for my meals). And with the free time I had left, I played intramural basketball and varsity soccer.
You were a great success at soccer. Can you talk about the team?
The soccer teams of the early 1960s were the beginning of the successful NCE soccer era. We won the NAIA National championship in 1961 -- NAIA was the equivalent to what is now the NCAA Div III program. I was one of the tri-captains of the team during my senior year. In addition to winning the national championship, we had a string of 17 straight wins. I played goal for 3 years and might still hold the record for most shutouts.
In 1968 you took a job with an orthopedic implant company, working on hip and knee joint replacements. That work is now considered biomedical engineering, isn’t it?
Back then, there was no biomedical engineering, either in industry or at universities. The biomedical field emerged later as the orthopedic industry grew. At that time I started, the design and development engineers were mostly mechanical, since orthopedics is essentially what I consider bone and motion mechanics. I was lucky to have started working in an industry that was in its infancy. In 1969, for example, in the U.S. doctors performed a total of 600 hip replacement procedures. In 2009, there were 400,000 hip replacements and 600,000 knee replacements. So in 40 years, the total number of joint replacement procedures grew to over a million.
Did an NCE graduate hire you? And what was the work like then?
I was hired by Bob Averill, also an ME from the NCE class of '62. He held the position of Engineering Director at Howmedica. I was hired as an entry-level project engineer. Later, when I switched to manufacturing engineering manager, Bob and I worked on the development of a number of joint replacement designs, including new total knee replacement design for which we received a patent. At that time, we’d meet with orthopedics surgeons to get their sense of what they needed. Then we added our engineering expertise to the device concepts. We had to understand human anatomy and observe surgeries to see what was needed in the way of instrumentation. Then we would produce prototypes for testing as well as a limited run of implants to see how they functioned in the body. If all that went well and the surgeons and patients were happy, we would then mass produce and marketed the implants to surgeons.
Is mechanical engineering still a good background to have if one wants to do the kind of work you do?
It’s a great training for the orthopedic side, since the orthopedic implant devices are related to bone and joint function. It encompasses many of the fundamentals of mechanical engineering. In addition, material sciences are also a large factor.
When and how did the biomedical engineering field get started?
I think I first heard the phrase, biomedical engineering, in the late 1970s. When I entered the orthopedic industry we got on the job training. But then as the industry grew the companies didn’t have time to train employees. So the colleges started offering classes and programs in biomedical engineering. At the same time, as knee and hip replacements began to get more sophisticated, biomedical engineers were needed to develop the more complex devices, using advanced biomaterials, and more sophisticated mechanical and animal testing.
You founded three orthopedic implant companies, which you sold to bigger companies. Can you talk about that?
As I described previously, life in a small company was very challenging but also educational and rewarding. In the second company that Bob and I founded, it was more of applying what we learned from the first start-up, except there were greater challenges, which we met with teamwork. Then that experience was the foundation for the third start-up. You like to think you can apply what you learn and you never stop learning. Even now, with all that behind me, I find I'm still learning things in and about an industry I thought I know pretty well. Just because one can be successful in a small company environment does not mean they can also be successful in a large company.
Do you prefer working in small companies?
I love the small company environment. There you have to be certain your decisions are right because if they are not, you will have to deal with any mess you create. In a large company, I find too much bureaucracy where managers are more focused on getting to the next promotion rather than doing what may be good for the company. In a small company environment, it's easier to enjoy what you are doing. In my mind, if you can't enjoy your job, you can't be successful. You must love what you do.
Did founding and selling three companies work out well for you?
My partners and I developed good products and were able to grow our businesses. When we reached a certain level, we found large companies that saw synergy with what we developed and were willing to acquire our firms. In the process, our investors did very well. Our first company was acquired by 3M; the second company, Osteonics, was bought by Stryker; and the third, Implex, by Zimmer Holdings. Stryker and Zimmer are two of the largest companies in the orthopedic joint replacement market today, and I like to think that our companies played a roll in their revenue growth.
Did you enjoy the engineering side better than the business side of your work?
I enjoyed both sides of it -- the entire business experience. Bob and I formed a company in 1972 that developed and marketed novel joint devices. Our company was later acquired by 3M. So although I started as an engineer, in a small company you must quickly learn to do everything. From sweeping the floors -- something I learned to do at NCE -- to finance, marketing and sales. I was once told by a venture capitalist that engineers often think they know and can do anything. In our case, we believed that and I think that conviction was the reason behind our success. Now it's difficult for me to separate business from the engineering principles I learned in college.
Do you keep in touch with any of your NCE classmates?
Mostly with the ones I played soccer with. NCE was a commuting school then, so athletics was the way to establish long-lasting friendships. Our soccer team was a close-knit bunch and many of us have stayed in touch, usually by way of golf outings.
Do you ever return to NJIT?
Yes, and again it was because of soccer. I came to NJIT when my friends and former classmates were inducted into the NJIT Athletics Hall of Fame. I also received that honor in 1996. And I came to the ceremony when the athletic field at NJIT was named after Malcolm Simon, the former soccer coach who began the tradition of winning soccer at NCE and NJIT with our teams of the early '60s. And I’m looking forward to attending the upcoming NCE Salute Dinner, during which I’ll receive an outstanding alumni Award.
What are you doing now? Are you retired?
I guess you can say I'm retired but not really. I’m in the middle of the start-up of a fourth company with former business associates. One of my partners, Robert Cohen, is an NJIT alumnus who came to work at Osteonics in 1984, a year after he graduated from NJIT. Our team is developing joint replacement devices for hips, knees and shoulders, using newer and better technologies and processes. It’s fun to still be in this business. When the orthopedic industry started -- and I was lucky to be there in the beginning -- there were about 250 people in the field. Many of us have stayed in touch, so I have friends everywhere in the field, which is always helpful when you are starting a company. Our other companies were quite successful and I have the same hopes for this one.